Campus News

The Key to Professional Success

October 16, 2013

Marvin Krislov

Photo credit: John Seyfried

What is the key to professional success? Many of us grapple with that question, particularly as we ponder the career paths of our students as they prepare to enter the full-time workforce. Forgive me, perhaps I’ve been too enmeshed in Girls and the travails of the characters within … . But I think about the future our graduates are facing, particularly in our challenging times.

Two recent, provocative articles struck me as offering insight into this question. Joanne Lipman’s opinion piece in the New York Times emphasizes the powerful connection between musical talent and success in many unrelated fields. She argues that musicians develop talents such as collaboration and discipline, the ability to listen and synthesize different ideas, as well as the present and the future. She also mentions the strong connection between math and music.

At Oberlin, conservatory graduates benefit from the extraordinarily high level of musicianship on our faculty, as well as those associated talents and skills Lipman describes. For those Oberlinians who focus on music, the associated talents Lipman discusses may have a profound effect on their careers.

They certainly have for some of our alumni. I’m thinking of such recent MacArthur winners from Oberlin as Jeremy Denk ’90, who earned degrees in piano performance and chemistry, and Claire Chase ’01, flutist, entrepreneur, and founder of the acclaimed International Contemporary Ensemble in Chicago. Lee Koonce ’82 earned a double degree in piano performance and Spanish literature. He is now executive director of the Third Street Music School Settlement in New York City. Before that he was the director of community relations at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and, prior to that, spent 10 years at Accenture, the world’s largest consulting firm. Mandy Tuong ’02, earned degrees in piano performance and history. She went on to earn a JD in law at the University of Minnsota Law School, became a very successful lawyer, and is now assistant general counsel for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

For those whose primary professional pursuit lies outside music, the associated skills can lead to highly successful careers. Consider the late Robert Kahn ‘55, for whom our Kahn residence hall is named, who graduated from Oberlin with a degree in music education and went on to huge success in finance. Or famed heart surgeon and inventor Dr. Billy Cohn ‘82, who is coming to Oberlin in a few weeks. Billy came here wanting to be a rock star trombonist/bass player, graduated with a chemistry degree, and went to med school. Like so many double-degree grads whose primary career is not in music, he still is an active player. Those are just a few of many, many examples of Oberlin students who hone their musical talents and their academic and extracurricular pursuits.

The discipline and dedication to craft that Lipman describes certainly can apply to other activities—writing, research, athletics. But it is worth pondering the notion that playing music, especially at the high level at which it is played at Oberlin, can lead to achievement in many fields.

The other article that I found thought-provoking was a recent Wall Street Journal column by Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert. Adams argues that failure leads to success.

He dismisses the advice to follow passion, and instead urges us to treat failures as an opportunity for growth. He advocates creating a system or method for our life pursuits, rather than setting goals that may never be achieved. Another theme he sounds is that failure not only makes us stronger, but stretches our talents and requires us to push harder.

His arguments aren’t entirely original. Somewhat similar ideas relating to failure and adversity can be found in Buddhism and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

While I’m not sure I agree with all of Adams’ observations, his funny examples of failures do underscore what many an entrepreneur and other successful people often say—you need to be willing to risk failure, and even experience it many times, to achieve great success. For example, Thomas Edison, the great inventor born in nearby in Milan, Ohio, had scores of failed attempts to create the light bulb before succeeding.

One example of risking failure while striving for success at Oberlin is our program Creativity & Leadership: Entrepreneurship at Oberlin, led by Acting Dean Andrea Kalyn. The program is preparing for its second annual LaunchU competition, in which students work to turn their entrepreneurial ideas into reality. The ventures can be profit or nonprofit, domestic or international, but must display the originality, creativity, and risk-tasking that animates the entrepreneurial spirit.

That this program links to the conservatory also suggests that Lipman and Adams may both be right. Music unleashes talent, creativity, synthesis of multiple ideas, and we can aim big, adjust, and even fail while on our paths to success.

I wish everyone all the best with midterms. I hope we all enjoy the break, and come back refreshed and ready for the second module.

Central Heating Plant Transition

Oberlin’s transition toward carbon neutrality advanced significantly this week as work began to replace our Central Heating Plant’s obsolete, coal-fired boilers with new natural gas-fired ones. If all goes according to play, Oberlin will become a coal-free institution in March 2014.

Oberlin is committed to reaching carbon neutrality by the year 2025. We plan for the natural-gas plant to be a relatively short-lived transitional facility as we seek and secure other forms of reliable, renewable, and clean energy. An opportunity for campus members to contribute to the conversation about how we proceed is taking place right after fall break. The workshop From Coal to Carbon Neutrality on Saturday, November 2, will allow participants aims to bring students, faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees together to envision carbon neutrality and how we can achieve it.

The college’s energy master plan seeks to reduce the campus’s reliance on and consumption of all fossil fuels. Besides decommissioning the coal plant and moving in the short term to natural gas—a fossil fuel which emits less carbon that coal—we plan to develop geothermal heating and cooling zones across campus that will utilize electric compressor technology.

Phasing in these zones will enable us to take advantage of the technology improvements that will occur over the next decade. The natural-gas plant will provide efficient heating and cooling during this interim period. Afterward, it will serve as a back-up system—in the event of an electrical outage, during times of unusually high need, and during maintenance periods.

There will be some dislocations to daily campus life, such as traffic and noise issues, during the process of replacing the Central Heating Plant’s boilers, which provide the steam required to heat almost every building on campus and to provide them with hot water. The plant also houses the chillers for cooling most campus buildings.

I apologize for any disruptions. But I’m proud that Oberlin is taking these historic steps towards a sustainable future. Also, be sure to take part in the workshop From Coal to Carbon Neutrality

After break, I hope to see you at my next Koffee with Krislov at Azariah’s in Mudd on October 29.

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